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New Jersey stresses vigilance as 'omicron tsunami' continues

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Governor Phil Murphy and Department of Health Commissioner Judy Persichilli attend a vaccination clinic at ShopRite of Fischer Bay. Grocery store workers receive their COVID-19 vaccinations during the event.    Toms River, NJFriday, April 23, 2021

Governor Phil Murphy and Department of Health Commissioner Judy Persichilli attend a vaccination clinic at ShopRite of Fischer Bay. Grocery store workers receive their COVID-19 vaccinations during the event. Toms River, NJFriday, April 23, 2021

State health officials say New Jersey may be only one week away from the peak of the COVID-19 omicron variant surge, but in the meantime, caseloads continue to soar statewide.

New Jersey is starting the new year with more COVID-hospitalized patients than during the peak of April and May 2020, Gov. Phil Murphy said Monday afternoon.

It was the governor’s first pandemic media briefing of 2022, and it was held remotely because his wife, Tammy, tested positive for the virus Sunday. Murphy said he and others in his family have tested negative and will continue to be examined in the coming days.

The state’s caseloads are also continuing to reach unparalleled numbers since the start of the pandemic, with the state reporting over 20,000 cases per day over a three-day period.

Last week, New Jersey broke its record for single-day reported caseloads on consecutive days, one of which was short of 30,000 newly confirmed cases.

“The numbers we’re seeing today blow anything we have seen since the start of the pandemic out of the water,” Murphy said.

Branding the trends as the “omicron tsunami,” Murphy said the state will remain committed to providing help where it is needed. That includes sending out “strike teams” of state and federal resources to help as hospitals cope with a surge of sick and a short-handed staff.

Hospitalizations in the state climbed from nearly 3,000 on Dec. 27 to over 4,700 on Sunday, according to the governor. That’s come as hospitals and nursing homes face staff shortages, Persichilli said. She suggested that the shortage is due to staff being out sick and added that hospitals and nursing homes are planning for the loss of 30% of their staff at minimum.

Hospital capacity may also be increased to handle the influx of patients, state Health Commissioner Judy Persichilli said.

Among the measures hospitals and nursing homes are taking are planning to increase shifts from the usual eight hours to up to 10 or 12, as well as redeploying administrative staff to work with patients, she said. They’re also planning to expand the number of patients that teams of health care workers see from up to eight patients to 15. Another change includes using EMTs to vaccinate people so that health care workers at vaccination sites can return to hospitals to alleviate the strain from staff shortages, she said.

Murphy and Persichilli offered an optimistic take on the latest case numbers, saying the latest models suggest the omicron wave will reach its peak sometime around Jan. 14.

“We cannot summarily give up the fight,” Murphy said. “We need to remain in a war footing to ensure that we can get resources to where they need to be and when they need to be there.”

As has been the case since COVID-19 vaccines have begun reaching most of New Jersey’s population, the unvaccinated continue to overwhelmingly be those filling hospital beds. Nearly 70% of the nearly 4,000 patients in the state’s 71 hospitals remained unvaccinated or partially vaccinated. They’re also accounting for most of the state’s reported COVID-related deaths, Murphy said.

New Jersey also has 102 children hospitalized for COVID-19, 76 of which have tested positive, Persichilli said.

The record caseloads have officials pleading with New Jerseyans to take the omicron surge seriously by wearing a mask and getting vaccinating, especially receiving a booster dose if they’re eligible.

New Jersey continues to lag in booster vaccinations, with only about 45% of those eligible for one having received a booster.

On Monday, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved booster doses of Pfizer’s vaccine for children and teens 12 to 15. Boosters were previously recommended for everyone 16 and older, and federal regulators.

Over 1,900 locations across New Jersey are administering vaccines, health officials said.

On New Year’s Day, Murphy formally directed leadership in the state Legislature to extend his administration’s emergency powers related to vaccine distribution, testing and that CDC guidance be maintained in high-risk settings.

Murphy did not say whether he would immediately consider reenacting a statewide mask mandate to stunt the outbreak. Those decisions can be made at the local level through an executive order he signed in June, and several communities have already done so, Murphy said.

Masks, however, will remain in schools and child care centers, settings in which many unvaccinated individuals remain, Murphy said.

“This brings us absolutely no joy,” Murphy said. “No one wants to see our kids’ smiles as much as I do, but this is what is necessary now to keep our schools safe.”

Schools in New Jersey and across the country have been evaluating a return to in-person learning since cases have spiked. However, state officials assert they are committed to keeping students in school, having recently implemented new “test-to-stay” guidance to allow a student exposed to the virus while in school, remain in school if are asymptomatic and test negative.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Contact Eric Conklin:

609-272-7261

econklin@pressofac.com

Twitter @ACPressConklin

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